1. Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci
From the Renaissance to Pop Art, we rank the most famous artists in order of popularity and reputation
What makes an artist great? It takes talent, of course, and a genius for innovation. Also, having some sort of vision helps. But a truly great artist is distinguished by a unique ability to take his or her moment in time and distill its essence so that resulting work becomes timeless. Limited to dress and hairstyle, for example, the Mona Lisa is just a woman from the Renaissance. But her expression—subtle, ambiguous—has given her a mystique that will survive the ages. And so it goes, not only for her creator, Leonardo Da Vinci, but also for the other artists (many of them included in New York museums such as The Met, MoMA and the Guggenheim) on our list of the most famous artists of all time.
Remarkably, Vermeer was largely forgotten for two centuries before his rediscovery in the 19th century. Since then, he’s been recognized as one of art history’s most important figures, an artist capable of rendering works of uncanny beauty. Many have argued the Vermeer used a camera obscura—an early form of projector—and certainly the soft blur he employs appears to foreshadow photorealism. But the most important aspect of his work is how it represents light as a tangible substance.
Johannes Vermeer, Het meisje met de parel (Girl with a Pearl Earring), 1665
Watteau (1684–1721) was arguably the greatest French painter of the 18th-century, a transitional figure between Baroque art and the Roccoco style that followed. He emphasized color and movement, structuring his compositions so that they almost resembled theater scenes, but it was the atmospheric quality of his work that would become highly influential for artists like J.M.W Turner and the Impressionists.
Jean-Antoine Watteau, The Shop Sign of Gersaint, (1720–21)
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia Commons/Antoine Watteau
Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) was one of towering figures of 19th-century art. A leading figure of Romanticism—which privileged emotions over rationalism—Delacroix’s expressive paint handling and use of color laid the foundation for successive avant-garde movements of the 1800s and beyond.
Eugene Delacroix, Self-Portrait with Green Vest, ca. 1837
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia Commons/cgfa.sunsite.dk via web.archive.org
Perhaps the best know artist among the Impressionists, Monet captured the changeable effects of light on the landscape through prismatic shards of color delivered as rapidly painted strokes. Moreover, his multiple studies of haystacks and other subjects anticipated the use of serial imagery in Pop Art and Minimalism. But the same token, his magisterial, late-career lily pond paintings foreshadowed Abstract Expressionism and Color-Field Abstaction.
Claude Monet, 1901
Most people know Georges Seurat (1859–1891) as the inventor of pointillism (which he actually developed with the artist Paul Signac), a radical painting technique in which small daubs of color where applied to the canvas, leaving it to the viewer’s eye to resolve those dots and dashes into images. Just as importantly, Seurat broke with the capture-the-moment approach of other Impressionists, going instead for ordered compositional style that recalled the stillness of classical art.
Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884–1886
Photograph: Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago/Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection
Vienna at the turn of the 20th century was a hothouse of psychologically and sexually charged tension and repression, and no figure channeled the milieu better than Egon Schiele (1890–1918), whose fevered sensibility found expression in drawings and paintings of subjects that were as explicit as they were jittery.
Egon Schiele, Self Portrait with Physalis, 1912
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia Commons/Google Arts & Culture
Born in Málaga, Spain, Pablo Picasso is undoubtedly one of the most famous artists ever. His name is virtually synonymous with modern art, and it doesn’t hurt that he fits the commonly held image of the outlaw genius whose ambitions are matched by an appetite for living large. He changed the course of art history with revolutionary innovations that include collage and, of course, Cubism, which broke the stranglehold of representational subject matter on art, and set the tempo for other 20th-century artists. He utterly transformed multiple mediums, making so many works that it’s hard to grasp his achievement.
Pablo Picasso, Woman with Fan, 1909
Hopper’s enigmatic paintings look into the hollow core of the American experience—the alienation and loneliness that represents the flip side of to our religious devotion to individualism and the pursuit of an often-elusive happiness. In compositions such as Nighthawks, Automat and Office in a Small City, he captures stillness weighed down by despair, his subjects trapped in the limbo between aspiration and reality. His landscapes are similarly suffused with a sense that America’s open spaces are as purgatorial as they are limitless.
Edward Hopper, Self Portrait, 1906
The Mexican artist and feminist icon was a performance artist of paint, using the medium to lay bare her vulnerabilities while also constructing a persona of herself as an embodiment of Mexico’s cultural heritage. Her most famous works are the many surrealistic self-portraits in which she maintains a regal bearing even as she casts herself as a martyr to personal and physical suffering—anguishes rooted in a life of misfortunes that included contracting polio as a child, suffering a catastrophic injury as a teenager, and enduring a tumultuous marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivera.
Frida Kahlo, 1932
Photograph: Guillermo Kahlo
Kusama (born 1929) is one of the most famous artists working today. Her huge popularity stems from her mirrored “Infinity Rooms” that have proved irresistible for Instagram users, but her career stretches back over six decades. Starting as a child, the Japanese artist began to suffer from hallucinations that manifested as flashes of light or auras, as well as fields of dots and flowers that talked to her. These experiences have provided the inspiration for her work, including the aforementioned rooms along with paintings, sculptures and installations that employ vivid, phantasmagorical patterns of polka dots and other motifs. Between 1957 and 1972, she lived in NYC, where she gained notoriety for chairs upholstered with stuffed-fabric phalluses, as well as outdoor happenings that involved public nudity. Her psychological afflictions, though, have continued to plague her, and in 1977, she committed herself to mental hospital in Japan where she’s lived ever since.
The following famous paintings—from Jan van Eyck's portrait to Gustav Klimt's masterpiece—have stood the test of time